x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

An uncertain result, but neighbours will arm Syrian rebels

There is no good answer to the question of how to help Syria. But if the outside world does nothing, failed-state status will become all too possible.

Syria's neighbours, and the whole world, should intervene before they find themselves with another Afghanistan on their hands.

Like many journalists, I crossed in and out of Afghanistan several times in the 1980s and 1990s. It wasn't difficult. Afghanistan was a hot spot that drew journalists and thrill-seekers from far and wide, and its borders were open.

Despite the well-equipped 100,000-man Soviet force that had invaded to prop up the "Marxist" government in Kabul, Afghanistan was not a bona fide state. The government and the Soviets had little presence outside the main cities and two military bases. Everywhere else, we found mujahideen fighting their enemies or each other.

The Pakistani army was turning a blind eye to the flow of people, supplies, weapons, equipment and vehicles into Afghanistan. Soviet and Afghan complaints to the UN Security Council and other international organisations went unheeded.

Syria has not reached that stage, but it is certainly heading that way. Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya television networks, for example, already have correspondents on the ground who were able to slip in, with their sophisticated broadcasting equipment, ignoring the Syrian government and its information ministry. Soon Doctors Without Borders may set up an unauthorised field hospital in, say, Idlib or the Damascus suburbs.

Obviously, it would be better if the regime acted sensibly and recognised its irretrievable loss of legitimacy. But wishful thinking is one thing; reality is another.

The Saudi foreign minister's comment that arming the Syrian opposition is an "excellent proposition" was based on the kingdom's grasp of two facts that will determine Syria's future: the regime's loss of legitimacy is irreversible, and it is quickly losing control outside urban areas. Saudi officials have refused to confirm a report on Saturday that the kingdom was already arming the Syrian Free Army.

If nothing is done, the recent killing in Homs will be replayed elsewhere, and the regime's brutality will intensify as it tries to regain control of rural areas or at least to punish the so-called "rebels" by cutting their supply routes.

A failed Syrian state would not be in the interest of its neighbours. Farms, villages and mountains might welcome revolutionaries and insurgents, but would also have to cope with adventurers, smugglers, criminals and anarchists.

The absence of state authority in Afghanistan lasted 12 years - and still continues to a degree. Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other neighbours will not tolerate a failed Syrian state. The costs and security implications would prove too serious.

So we owe it to ourselves to help the Syrians. But is arming the opposition likely to bring down the regime? More importantly, would it induce neighbours to steer clear of direct intervention?

Arming the opposition would stoke the fire of conflict without necessarily toppling the regime. As fighting expands, neighbour states that are not ready to intervene would have no choice but to do so - unless they were willing to tolerate a nearby failed state for years, as Pakistan did in Afghanistan.

Pakistan continues to pay heavily for that. More than 30 years after the 1979 Soviet invasion, 1.7 million Afghans are still registered as refugees in Pakistan.

Such concerns probably explain the February 27 statement by the Saudi Council of Ministers, that the kingdom "will be at the forefront of any international endeavour liable to bring swift, comprehensive and effective solutions safeguarding the Syrian people".

What does "international endeavour" mean, if not intervention? Clearly the kingdom will be at the forefront of almost anything to end the tragedy rather than let it drag on or get worse.

The Saudi call for arming the opposition raised expectations because it signalled a break with the Assad regime. Moreover, arming the opposition does not need an international mandate. It can be a clandestine act; remember that Syria's borders have become porous.

Direct military intervention seems unlikely. Cautious planners draw up worst-case scenarios presuming, for example, that an adversary could retaliate with rockets carrying chemical warheads. It would be safer for any neighbour to arm the opposition and see Syrians themselves take on the regime.

But it is also less certain. Arming the opposition might bring down the regime but could also lead to a partition of Syria and would surely increase casualties. The regime would come down very strongly against each liberated city. Refugee numbers could swell and calls for intervention could resume.

But if the regime is intent on more slaughters like the one in the Baba Amr district of Homs, swift intervention could be the less costly solution for Syrians.

But there can be no intervention without international mandate. The Russians are not only blocking any UN resolution authorising intervention, but are also blocking any draft urging a ceasefire by the "two sides", committing the regime to "protect civilians" or giving the go-ahead to "secure humanitarian corridors".

Such resolutions, once passed, could indeed be open to free interpretation. Someone could put Damascus on notice, claiming that it had failed to protect civilians. That's what the US did in the case of Belgrade before Nato jets struck in March 1999, without first referring back to the Security Council.

Syria is at an impasse. And until it is solved, another Afghanistan may be in the making in the heart of the Middle East.


Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is editor-in-chief of the planned Alarab news channel

On Twitter: @JKhashoggi